Friday, October 16, 2009

Folk I

What are we to understand by 'folk'? A whole nation, with or without minorities? A single class (the lower class)? A section of that class (country workers)? In those parts of Western Europe and America where class distinctions, thought real enough, are rather blurred, some people, specialists as well as amateurs, have taken 'folk' to mean the nation, all classes, upper, lower, urban, rural, regardless of social, historical or spiritual differences. This was the view of German romantics of the time of Goethe and Herder and with modifications it has gone in and out of fashion several times since (in America at the moment it is rather 'in'). It is a permissible view in the attenuated sense that we are all bearers of some sort of folklore, if only in the form of the dirty story, apparently an indestructible type of oral 'literature'. The trouble is, such a prospect extends too easily to a boundless panorama going beyond all reasonable definition, so that in the field of song for instance any piece that has passed widely into public circulation is identified as 'folk', especially if one can pretend it somehow expresses part of the essential character of the nation. Thus, Silcher and Heine's 'Die Lorelei' is exhibited as folk song, likewise 'The bonnie bank o' Loch Lomond' (words and tune by a Victorian aristocrat, Lady John Scott), Stephen Foster's 'Old folks at home', and more recently with even slenderer titles, Bob Dylan's 'Blowin' in the wind'. To say nothing of Pottier and Degeyter's 'Internationale'. By this time we are not far from the vague contours suggested by Louis Armstrong's dreary axiom: 'All music's folk music: leastways I never heard of no horse making it.'

Against this broad and hardly manageable 'popular' view of folk song as national song is set the restricted picture offered by several scientists of musical folklore who follow Bartók in considering the term 'folk song' to be synonymous with peasant song, and who maintain that no other part of the nation but working farmers and farm labourers are true shapers and bearers of traditional verse and melody.

It is worth considering how
Bartók came to this opinion for his conclusions are paralleled by those of Cecil Sharp, though Sharp's are by no means so firmly based. As a very young man Bartók was among those who thought that national music and folk music were one and the same. In 1896, while he was still in his teens, Hungary celebrated it millennium in a fever of nationalism that lasted for several years. Kodály has described the time. Everything was to be Hungarian not Austro-German: Hungarian words of command in the army, a Hungarian coat of arms on every post office, a Hungarian anthem to replace Haydn's Hapsburg hymn. he young Bartók wore Hungarian costume, then back in fashion, even on the concert platform. In his search for a Hungarian style of composition freed from German influence he was attracted to the verbunkos idiom of of the gypsy orchestras imagining, as Liszt had, that this was folk stuff; whereas in fact the repertory of the gypsy bands is principally made up of fanciful treatments of tunes composed from the mid-nineteenth century onward by educated amateurs of aristocratic or bourgeios birth; and though this kind of light popular air is often taken for Hungarian folk song, the real thing is vastly different, as Bartók discovered when he set off with his long-horned Edison recording machine to collect peasant songs in the Szekely-Hungarian villages of Transylvania

Folk Song in England

A.L. Lloyd

Lawrence & Wishart Ltd 1967

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